Category Archives: Russia-Ukraine Week

Russian Naval Strategy for the Indo-Pacific

Russia-Ukraine Topic Week

By David Scott


Currently, much of the attention given to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is focused on the land and air domains; but the Russian Federation Navy has also played a role in the Black Sea, where there has been some involvement by elements of Russia’s Pacific Fleet. Firstly, Russia dispatched a task force from Vladivostok comprising the Pacific Fleet’s flag ship cruiser Varyag, the anti-submarine destroyer Admiral Tributs, and the sea tanker Boris Butoma. These ships moved across the Indian Ocean to the Eastern Mediterranean for an inter-navy exercise in mid-February with six other ships from the Northern and Baltic Fleets, which were then dispatched to the Black Sea for amphibious operations against Ukraine. The Varyag flotilla remained in the Mediterranean, in effect complicating any easy NATO deployment to the Black Sea. Secondly, in mid-March, Russia dispatched their entire amphibious capabilities from the Pacific Fleet (the Oslyabya, Admiral Nevelskoy, Peresvet, and Nikolay Vilkov), amid speculation that they were on a three week voyage across the Indian Ocean carrying military trucks and other supplies to bolster Russian forces in the Ukraine. Thirdly, also in mid-March, news emerged that Russia was transferring by rail the 40th Krasnodar-Harbin Naval Infantry Brigade, based at Petropavlovsk in Kamchatka, and the 155th Naval Infantry Brigade, based in Vladivostok, for amphibious operations in the Black Sea.

In light of these contributions from Russia’s Pacific Fleet and the longer-term geopolitical and geo-economic significance of the region, this article looks at Russia’s maritime doctrine, assets, basing facilities, deployments, and relationships in the Indo-Pacific.

Maritime Doctrine

Russian aspirations were codified in the 2015 Maritime Doctrine, which focuses on the “waters of the World Ocean (mirovoy okean).” It pinpointed Russian “regional priority areas” as the Atlantic (including the Baltic, Black Sea and Mediterranean), Arctic, Pacific, Indian Ocean, and Antarctica.

Salient points for the Pacific Ocean Regional Priority Area included:

  • “The significance of the Pacific Ocean regional priority area for the Russian Federation is enormous and continues to grow” (Point 62).
  • “The Russian Far East has colossal resources, especially in the exclusive economic zone and on the continental shelf” (Point 62).
  • “Development of capabilities (troops) and the military base installation system of the Pacific Fleet” (Point 65b).
  • “An important component of the National Maritime Policy in the Pacific Ocean regional area is the development of friendly relations with China” (Point-63).

In comparison to the 2001 Maritime Doctrine, new features in 2015 were the shift from “Pacific Coast” to “Pacific Ocean,” the identification of military base installations for the Pacific Fleet, and the recognition of strategic partnership with China.

Salient points for the Indian Ocean Regional Priority Area included:

  • “Development of friendly relations with India is the most important goal of the National Maritime Policy in the Indian Ocean region” (Point 68).
  • “Periodically or as necessary, ensuring the naval presence of the Russian Federation in the Indian Ocean” (Point 69b).

In comparison to the 2001 Maritime Doctrine, a new feature in 2015 was the recognition of strategic partnership with India in the Indian Ocean.

Within the 2015 Maritime Doctrine, how do the two sections on the Pacific and Indian Ocean compare? Firstly, the Pacific had 80 lines devoted to it, while the Indian Ocean had a more modest 13 lines. Secondly, as in 2001, the Pacific, but not the Indian Ocean, was identified in terms of importance as already “enormous” and envisaged to “grow” still more. Thirdly, Pacific Fleet capabilities were identified as needing quantitative and qualitative growth. Fourthly, the Pacific Ocean Regional Priority Area included the eastern part of the Arctic within the Northern Sea Route. The 2015 Maritime Doctrine envisaged strengthening facilities on the Russian coastline and islands along the Sea of Japan and Sea of Okhotsk; however, Russia’s presence in the Indian Ocean was envisaged as being through “periodic naval deployments.” Politically, whereas cooperation with India was the “most important goal” for Russia in the Indian Ocean, friendly relations with China was the “important component” for Russian maritime policy in the Pacific. This ignores Russia’s dilemma of growing China-India competition and friction in the Indian Ocean and South China Sea.

Basing facilities

Russia’s Pacific Fleet is headquartered at Vladivostok (“Lord of the East”) in a new military complex around Vladivostok Bay at the off-limits city of Fokino. Northward along the coast is the Sovetskaya Gavan base, after which the coast runs past the Russian island of Sakhalin and curves around the Sea of Okhotsk, which is enclosed by Russian control of the Kamchatka peninsula and the Kurile Islands. At Komsomolsk-on-Amur, the Amur Shipyard has recovered its earlier Soviet significance as the main shipbuilding enterprise for the Pacific Fleet.

Significant Russian forces are in Kamchatka, by Petropavlovsk, at the Rybachiy Nuclear Submarine Base, which was upgraded in 2015 to house the new Project 955 Borei-class nuclear-powered ballistic missile (SSBN) submarines. Russian submarine concentration in the Sea of Okhotsk reflects a deliberate bastion approach. Russia can further enclose the Sea of Okhotsk by securing the Kurile chain, which runs from Kamchatka to Hokkaido. At the northern end of the chain, K-300P “Bastion-P” mobile defense missile units with Onyx anti-ship missiles were placed on Matua in December 2021. At the south end of the chain, S-300V4 missile systems were placed on Iturup in December 2020, while high performance S-300V4 surface-to- air missile tests from Etorofu Island in March 2022 were taken as a signal against the United States and Japan. Investigations have been made for a further base for the Pacific Fleet in the Kurile Islands, with immediate access to the deep waters of the North-West Pacific. Japan’s support of sanctions against Russia over the Ukraine War has led to increased Russian military action in the Kurile chain, Russia’s “front line in the East.”

Outside of its own waters, Russia was given increased access to Cam Rahn Bay (Vietnam) in 2014, but not its old Soviet-era basing rights. In the Indian Ocean, however, Russia has established closer links with Myanmar and its military leadership, with naval cooperation as part of the wider military cooperation agreement signed in 2016 and further agreement in January 2018 for entry of Russian warships into Myanmar’s ports. The desirability of a Reciprocal Logistical Support (RELOS) agreement was mooted in the Russia-India annual summit Joint Statement in December 2021. Such an agreement would open up Russian access to Indian bases around the Bay of Bengal, including the Andaman and Nicobar Islands.

Having lost its Soviet-era bases in Somalia, Yemen, and Ethiopia, Russia has regained some presence in the Red Sea through the announcement in November 2020 of an agreement to build a logistical support and maintenance facility in the Sudan — an evident power play supporting Russian operations in the Eastern Mediterranean and establishing a gateway to the Western Indian Ocean. Following the military coup in October 2021, which was condemned in the West, the new Sudanese leader Abdel al-Burhan reaffirmed the general principles of this deal; as did the Deputy Head of State Mohamed Dagalo, who visited Moscow on February 24, the day that Russian tanks rolled into Ukraine.


As of 2022, the current Russian Pacific Fleet consists of 53 Warships — one guided missile cruiser, four large anti-submarine warfare (ASW) ships, two guided missile destroyers, four corvettes, eight small ASW ships, three guided missile corvettes, 11 guided missile boats, two seagoing minesweepers, eight base minesweepers, four landing ships, and five landing crafts — and 23 Submarines — four nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines, six nuclear-powered guided missile submarines, four nuclear-powered attack submarines, and nine attack submarines.

This is much smaller than the Soviet Pacific Fleet, and indeed the current U.S. Pacific Fleet of around 200 warships/submarines. Nevertheless, it represents some recovery from the troubled 1980s and 1990, during which rusting vessels (korabli ostoya “sediment ships”) were a common sight at Russian Pacific Fleet bases. Under Vladimir Putin, a “resurgence” of the Pacific Fleet by the late 2010s caused some unease for the United States, and talk by Russia of the Pacific Fleet’s “awe-inspiring sea power.” Plans for deployment of new large units to the Russian fleet were announced in the early 2010s, though the focus by 2020 changed to light units and submarines.

Various modernization and expansion programs are underway. Nanuchka-class corvettes (Project 1234) are having their Malakhit missiles replaced by Uran missiles. The Smerch finished this upgrade in October 2019 and has already rejoined the Pacific Fleet, with three other Pacific Fleet ships to be upgraded next. Udaloy-class anti-submarine destroyers (Project 1155) are being upgraded with Kalibr and Uran guided missiles. This upgrade commenced with the return of the Marshal Shasposhnikov to the Pacific Fleet in May 2021, with the Admiral Vinogradov next in line.

Nuclear powered Oscar-class cruise missile (SSGN) submarines (Project 949A) are being modernized, with their Granit missiles set for replacement by Kalibr missiles. The Irkutsk submarine leads the program, albeit slowly, to be returned to the Pacific by 2022/2023, followed by the Chelyabinsk. Finally, the Marshal Shasposhnikov and the Irkutsk are being provided with universal launchers for 3M22 Zirkon hypersonic weaponry. The Pacific Fleet is scheduled to get six improved Kilo-class diesel-electric attack submarines (Project 636.3) by 2024. The Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky and the Volkhov already transited the Indian Ocean in October 2021. Next in line is the Magadan, commissioned in October 2021, and currently on its way to Vladivostok. The large Poseidon-class special purpose (Project 09852) nuclear submarine, complete with underwater nuclear drones, is scheduled for delivery to the Pacific Fleet by summer 2022.

Three new Gorshkov-class super frigates (Project 22350) are due to join the Pacific Fleet — the Admiral Amelko in 2023, and two others of that class by 2025. They are envisaged as leading powerful operational attack groups. Construction started for the Pacific Fleet in 2021 at the Amur Shipyard for four new corvettes of the Gremyashchy-class (Project 20385). They will join the Gremyashchy corvette, already envisaged by Vladimir as able to use hypersonic Zirkon missiles, which joined the Pacific Fleet in October 2021, to be followed by the Provorny. The Amur Shipyard has also been turning out Steregushchy-class (Project 20380) corvettes, all-purpose warships, including anti-submarine attack Ka-27 capabilities, for the Pacific Fleet. So far, they have produced the Sovershennyy in 2017, the Gromiky in 2018, and the Hero of the Russian Federation Aldar Tsdenzhapove in December 2020; the Rezkiy and Sharp are carrying out sea trials in 2022. Of significance, these corvettes have been augmented with anti-ship Uran-M missiles able to take out enemy destroyers.

Highlights in Pacific Fleet submarine augmentation were the arrivals of Project 955 Borei-class SSBN submarines — the Alexander Nevsky in 2015 and the Vladimir Monomakh in 2016. A flurry of submarine developments was announced in December 2021. Firstly, the Pacific Fleet received its first Project 885-M Yasen-class nuclear-powered cruise missile (SSGN) submarine, the Novosibirsk. Three more are envisaged for the Pacific Fleet — the Krasnoyarsk currently carrying out mooring trials, with the Perm and Vladivostokunder construction. Secondly, the advanced Borei-A SSBN submarine (Project 955A), the Knyaz Oleg, was commissioned for the Pacific Fleet. Both additions were welcomed by Putin in a video link. Thirdly, a second Borei-A class submarine, the Generalissimus Suvorov, was launched for service with the Pacific Fleet.

However, one weakness remains with the Pacific Fleet’s lack of air power. Russia’s only aircraft carrier, the Admiral Kuznetsov, remains attached to the Northern Fleet, leaving its Pacific Fleet without an aircraft carrier to face the U.S. Navy’s Pacific Fleet, which has seven carriers. 


The Russian Federation Navy has been extending its radius deeper into the Pacific, and more widely, back into South-East Asia and the Indian Ocean.

Major war games (Ocean Shield 2020) were carried out in the Bering Sea in August 2020, the first since the Soviet period. This involved over 40 warships from the Pacific Fleet, including their flagship Varyag, as well as the surfacing by the nuclear attack submarine Omsk off the coast of Alaska. Anti-area access training was carried out at this choke point entrance to the Arctic, which is a growing focus for Russian Pacific Fleet submarines operating in the Northern Sea Route linking Asia and Europe.

In another clear signal to the United States, the Russian Navy conducted large scale exercises (up to 20 surface combatants, submarines, and support vessels, including again the Varyag), about 4,000 km into the “distant maritime zone” of the central Pacific, around 300 miles west of Hawaii. Creating some alarm bells for U.S. strategists, the Russian Ministry of Defense stated their practise purpose was destroying aircraft carrier strike groups.

Russia’s Pacific Fleet has been re-appearing in Southeast Asian waters, with an “uptick” in countries visited apparent since 2014. Russian naval activism was most recently reflected in the ARNEX exercise held with Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) states in the South China Sea in December 2021. Russia sent the anti-submarine destroyer the Admiral Panteleyev; “a rich dose of symbolism” but still “punching below its weight” (Storey).

Russian deployments to the Indian Ocean are multi-directional. At times, the Northern, Baltic, and Black Sea Fleets send vessels down from the Mediterranean to the Indian Ocean. At other times, the Pacific Fleet deploys across the Indian Ocean. Reasons for deployment include joint exercising with India since 2003, anti-piracy operations in the Gulf of Aden since 2008, and bilateral and trilateral exercising with Iran and China since 2019.

Pacific Fleet units have also been deployed further westwards up to the Mediterranean, an extension first witnessed in 2013 with the dispatch of a flotilla headed by the destroyer Admiral Pantaleyev, accompanied by two amphibious warfare ships, the Peresvet and Admiral Nevelskoi, and a tanker to join other ships from the Northern and Black Sea Fleets. This pattern of Pacific Fleet deployment from the Indian Ocean to the Mediterranean was repeated with the Varyag in 2016 and, currently, in 2022.


In terms of exercising partners in the Indo-Pacific, Russia enjoys maritime cooperation with India, Iran, and China.

Renewing Soviet-era links, units from Russia’s Black Sea and Pacific Fleets commenced bi-annual Indra exercises with India in May 2003. These were carried out in the Bay of Bengal (2003, 2005, 2015, 2018), Arabian Sea (2003, 2009, 2019), Sea of Japan (2007, 2017), and Baltic Sea (2021). Nevertheless, some limitations remain. An Indian flotilla arriving at Vladivostok was unable to carry out the 2011 Indra exercise because the Pacific Fleet had no available ships. A Logistics Agreement for their two navies is close but was postponed at their December 2021 summit. The announcement from Russia in January 2022 that Indra naval exercises will be held in the Black Sea in Fall 2022 remains to be confirmed in light of drawn-out Russian operations against Ukraine in the Black Sea initiated in February 2022.

A naval cooperation agreement with Iran in August 2019 was followed by the Baltic Fleet dispatching the Yarolslav Mudry and the Elyna tanker for trilateral exercises with Iran and China in December 2019 — a format repeated in January 2022. Meanwhile, bilateral exercises with Iran were conducted in February 2021. The Baltic Fleet dispatched the corvette Stoyky and oil tanker Kola, and the Pacific Fleet dispatched the previously mentioned Varyag flotilla.

Significantly, Russia-China land cooperation in Eurasia is being matched by increasing maritime cooperation. The annual Joint Sea bilateral exercises initiated in 2012 have increased in complexity, interoperability, and range. These were carried out in the Yellow Sea in 2012 (and 2019), the Sea of Japan in 2013 (2015 and 2017), the East China Sea in 2014, and the Sea of Okhotsk in 2017. A particularly significant exercise was the extended operation between the Russian and Chinese navies in October 2021, which included sailing around the entire eastern coast of Japan. Russian naval exercising with China helps their respective spheres. Their joint exercises in the South China Sea in 2016 helped China; their joint exercising in the Mediterranean and Black Sea in 2015 and the Baltic Sea in 2017 helped Russia.

Russian naval exercises with China have also developed in the Indian Ocean, “teaming up on the US” (Siow; also Maestro). In November 2019, the Russian Northern Fleet dispatched its flag ship cruiser Marshall Ustinov and the tanker Vyaz’ma for trilateral exercises (Exercise Mosi) with China and South Africa. This was followed in late-December by the Baltic Fleet’s dispatch of the frigate Yarolslav Mudry and the tanker Elynafor trilateral exercises (Maritime Security Belt) with China and Iran in the Gulf of Oman, which were seen in China as pushing back against the United States. In January 2022, as mentioned, the Pacific Fleet sent the Varyag flotilla for trilateral naval exercises (Maritime Security Belt/CHIRU-2022) with China and Iran in the Gulf of Oman — a coalition which was described by Iran’s ambassador to Russia as creating “a lot of pain for the West.” Further bilateral exercises with China took place in the Arabian Sea (Peaceful Sea 2022) before the Russian flotilla continued to the Mediterranean to assist Russian operations in Ukraine.


Four points emerge. Firstly, while Russian strength in the Pacific shows renewal, it remains inferior to U.S. strength. Secondly, Russia’s close maritime cooperation with China is increasingly problematic for the United States, since Russia and China act as force multipliers for each other in the Indo-Pacific and beyond. Thirdly, Russian fleet activity in the Indo-Pacific is not just a question of Pacific Fleet deployment, but also involves inter-fleet deployments of the Northern, Baltic, and Black Sea Fleets to the Indian Ocean. Fourthly, this works the other way as well, with Pacific Fleet deployments going beyond the Indo-Pacific, not only to the Arctic, but also the Mediterranean, where inter-fleet exercises were carried out in 2013, 2016, and 2022. This may, however, be a sign of weakness, indicating the separate Russian Naval Commands do not have enough forces at their disposal.

Dr. David Scott is an associate member of the Corbett Centre for Maritime Policy Studies. A prolific writer on Indo-Pacific maritime geopolitics, he can be contacted at

Featured image: Russian cruiser RFS Varyag, an Iranian frigate and Chinese Type 052D destroyer Urumqi in the Arabian Sea. (Credit: Navy Lookout)

For Ukraine, the 1,000-Ship Navy Finally Sets Sail

Russia-Ukraine Topic Week

By J. Overton

As of mid-March 2022, the nation of Ukraine, invaded and partially occupied by Russia, effectively has no Navy. On March 3, 2022, Ukraine scuttled its Navy’s flagship to prevent the vessel’s capture by invading Russian forces, and some of its remaining ships – in this case transferred ex-U.S. Coast Guard cutters three to four decades old – have been destroyed. Recent losses aside, the two nations’ naval forces were unevenly matched before the current war began. According to retired U.S. Navy Admiral and former Naval Forces Europe commander James Foggo, “If you go back to 2014, when the Russians essentially blockaded the Ukrainian fleet, they were both at the time in [the Crimean port of] Sevastopol and they had upwards of 80 ships. When [Russia] sank all these old relics in the harbor and the Ukrainians couldn’t get out, they lost their navy. They lost their naval headquarters. They lost their naval academy. And they lost some of their officers that were sympathetic to the Russian side…The balance is tipped grossly in favor of the Russians.”

Being without a Navy, fortunately, does not mean that there is no seapower acting in Ukraine’s interest, or that there are no naval lessons or innovations coming from this terrible and hopefully short conflict. From Maine to Majorca, Turkey to Panama, a distributed network of international maritime actors has emerged in response to Russian aggression. It manifests a theory that was developed 17 years ago — the “1,000 Ship Navy” (TSN).

The TSN concept was publicized in remarks that then-Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Michael Mullen made at the Naval War College’s 2005 Current Strategy Forum. In those and following remarks and articles, he explained the idea: “…we could broaden our definition of what constitutes the fleet. The United States Navy cannot, by itself, preserve the freedom and security of the entire maritime domain…It must count on assistance from like-minded nations interested in using the sea for lawful purposes … I envision a ‘1,000-ship navy’ – a fleet-in-being, if you will, made up of the best capabilities of all freedom-loving navies of the world.”

Saying that the U.S. Navy needed “assistance” was not always well-received within the U.S. or by those hoped-for global partners. The name was an attempt to more clearly define a nebulous desire for broader global maritime partnerships. It did not literally mean 1,000 ships, or necessarily any ships, since Mullen described the TSN of being composed of “capabilities,” not only ships. Attempts were made to give concrete examples of how a TSN would look and function, to name it something more palatable (like “Global Maritime Partnership”), and in a Naval War College Review article from 2007, to define steps to “revive enthusiasm” for it only two years after it was first publicized.

In the first few months of 2022, however, a TSN is finally forming. Its nature as a cooperative effort of international maritime capabilities, biased toward action rather than regulation, pursuing a common objective below the threshold of war – makes it recognizable as such. But now realized and observable, in its very early stages, the character of the TSN emerging in reaction to the Russia-Ukraine war is different in three significant ways from what was originally theorized.

The theoretical TSN was a collection of primarily nation-state naval capabilities used against non-state actors and natural disasters. But this new TSN is a collection of mostly interagency, non-naval, and sometimes non-state capabilities, using diplomatic and economic power, and even guerrilla tactics, against a nation state’s (Russia’s) elements of maritime and national power.

This new TSN’s first action was arguably when, after the Irish government was unable to stop a pending Russian naval exercise in its fishing grounds, Irish fisherman took to seas by the hundreds to legally, peacefully obstruct the exercise (notably different from State-directed Chinese fishing fleets also used to impact naval exercises). Their efforts were successful and prompted Russia’s defense minister to relocate the exercise in late January 2022.

Ongoing operations from local jurisdictions and individual actors include striking targets of opportunity with the general objective of depleting or hindering Russia’s maritime power and interests, such as turning Russian vessels away from ports and sabotaging or impounding yachts owned by Russian oligarchs.

The superyacht Dilbar owned by Russian oligarch Alisher Usmanov. The yacht is currently suspended from leaving port in Hamburg, Germany. (Getty photo)

The theoretical TSN was envisioned as an adjunct to the world’s most powerful Navy. The new TSN formed organically and disparately. The world’s three biggest shipping lines suspended non-essential deliveries to Russia, joining a growing list of companies shunning Moscow amid Western sanctions over its invasion of Ukraine. Turkey, not considered a belligerent in this conflict, has restricted the passage of warships from warring states – notably, Russia – through the Bosphorous. The Russian Navy’s attacks – deliberate or not – on third-country merchant shipping are also helping unite maritime powers, who otherwise would have minimal interests in the war, in opposition to Russia.

The theoretical TSN envisioned the U.S. providing communications and intelligence networks for a “common operating picture” among partners in the TSN. The new TSN relies on open source communications and intelligence, available to mostly everyone with an internet or cell phone connection.

Black Sea shipping traffic can be monitored in real-time online, without particular equipment training, and the location of Russian ships, or Russian-crewed ships, in other parts of the world is being shared via traditional and social media. TSN actors – independent actors, nation states, and international agencies and corporations – guided by a common goal, will act on this information as they see fit.


Attention related to the international community’s direct involvement in the war remains mostly focused on landpower. The maritime component of this war – which, with a few exceptions, bears little resemblance to common perceptions of naval warfare – is covered mostly anecdotally. This horrible conflict has however been the catalyst that set in motion a concept which a decade-and-a-half ago was considered too idealistic. The emerging TSN may be an example of the limits, or decline, of U.S. naval power. It may turn out to be too uncoordinated and tactically sporadic to provide any strategic benefits to Ukraine or damage to Russia. Its Nelsonian standing order may remain nothing more substantive than the profane, defiant “last words” of a Ukrainian soldier.

But this TSN is an undeniable “global force for good,” in an early and disparate iteration, quickly spreading across the maritime domain with more potential reach than any single nation’s Navy. It just took Russian aggression – not American encouragement – to put it to sea.

J. Overton is Non-Resident Fellow at the Modern Institute at West Point. He was previously an adjunct professor for the Naval War College and Marine Corps Command and Staff College, and served in the U.S. Coast Guard. He is a graduate of the Naval War College, the Joint Forces Staff College, and Northern Arizona University. He lives in the Pacific Northwest. The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the United States Military Academy, Department of the Navy, or Department of Defense.

Featured Image: The superyacht Dilbar owned by Russian oligarch Alisher Usmanov. (Photo via

An Anti-Access Denial Strategy For Ukraine

Russia-Ukraine Topic Week

By Jason Lancaster

Russian forces crossed the border into Ukraine on 24 February 2022. Since then, these forces have been slowly advancing;1 yet there has been little press coverage of activity at sea. The Russian Federation Navy has exercised sea control throughout the conflict, which it has so far exploited to conduct an amphibious landing near Mariupol,2 attack merchant ships with missiles, and bombard Snake Island. It remains unclear whether Ukraine or Russia are responsible for drifting mines discovered in the Black Sea and neutralized by Turkey and Romania.

A map indicating strikes, fronts, and contested areas in the Ukraine War. Click to expand. (Graphic via UK Ministry of Defence)

Prior to hostilities, Russia transferred several ships from the North and Baltic Sea Fleets into the Black Sea, including a Slava-class cruiser and six Landing Ship Tanks (LSTs).3 Since hostilities began, Turkey has closed the Bosporus Strait to all warships, eliminating Russia’s ability to reinforce the Black Sea Fleet.4

Maritime strategist Julian Corbett divided the concept of sea control between local or general, temporary or permanent. Sea control means controlling the sea lines of communications one side needs to maintain while fighting to deny that control to an adversary. Wayne Hughes described sea denial as “turning the ocean into a vast no man’s land.”Ukraine lost 80% of its navy and support infrastructure with the loss of the Crimea in 2014.6 With little money, few ships, and no time to acquire new weapons, Ukraine cannot achieve sea control. However, the right NATO support could enable Ukraine to deny Russia sea control, limit Russian maneuver, and impose costs on the Russian Federation Navy.

To deny sea control to the Russians, Ukraine needs sea mines, coastal defense cruise missiles, and scouting assets, such as fast patrol boats and drones. These systems have a symbiotic relationship in layered defense. Mines slow down the adversary; during clearance operations, CDCMs have an opportunity to engage the slowed vessels; and scouting assets support maritime domain awareness for over the horizon targeting. NATO should rush these weapons to support Ukraine’s defense.

Sea Mines

“We have lost command of the sea to a nation without a navy, using weapons that were obsolete in World War I and laid by vessels that were used at the time of the birth of Jesus Christ.”— Rear Adm. Smith, Commander, Amphibious Task Force, Wonsan, Korea, 1950.7

Any coastal nation can utilize mines to defend its coast. Mines are a cheap and effective way to deny the enemy maneuver. Mines damaged more U.S. ships since the end of World War II than any other weapon. They can be effective and terrifying. The majority of the Black Sea between Odessa and Crimea is less than 50 fathoms, which makes it an excellent location for mine warfare.

Location in the water column and fuse systems are the two ways mines are classified. Protective and defensive mining defends one’s own ports in territorial and international waters. Protective minefields would help defend the Ukrainian army’s flank from an amphibious assault. Offensive mining denies the enemy the use of their ports or closes off chokepoints. Floating mines are in violation of the 1907 San Remo Treaty but have been found in the Black Sea. It is unclear whether they were Ukrainian or Russian mines that broke free of moorings, or if they were part of a Russian false flag operation.8

Offensive minefields laid off of the main naval base of Sevastapol and in the Kerch Strait would limit the Russian Navy’s ability to maneuver and operate in the Black Sea. The majority of Russian ships in the Black Sea are smaller ships, such as frigates and corvettes. Smaller ships require more frequent port visits to resupply and give their smaller crews time to rest. Closing off the port of Sevastapol and the Kerch Strait would prevent the ships from resupply or leaving port.

NATO partners such as Italy are world leaders in mine development. The Italian Manta mine is a popular bottom influence mine. A Manta mine damaged the USS Princeton (CG 59) during the first Gulf War. NATO support to Ukraine has included other defensive weapons, such as anti-aircraft missiles and anti-tank weapons; mines would be an effective way to defend Odessa’s right flank while denying the Russian Federation Navy control of the Black Sea.

Coastal Defense Cruise Missiles

“They blew my old ship Sheffield away last night…”Rear Admiral Sandy Woodward RN, Commander Falklands Battle Group, 19819

The first battle with anti-ship cruise missiles occurred in 1967. Egyptian patrol boats sank the Israeli destroyer Eilat with Styx missiles. The British lost several ships to anti-ship cruise missiles during the Falklands War. An Exocet fired from the beach damaged HMS Glamorgan. The Argentinians used ship-based missiles jury-rigged to fire from a truck. Both of these examples demonstrate a naval David’s challenge to a naval Goliath.

Without missile-armed ships or aircraft, coastal defense cruise missiles (CDCMs) are the main way Ukraine can challenge Russia’s sea control. CDCMs mounted on transport, erector, launchers (TELs) are highly mobile. They identify a target, shoot, and then maneuver to another location. The threat of missiles changes operational behavior. Most modern navies draw range rings around the coast of an opponent with CDCMs. Within the enemy’s weapons engagement zone (WEZ), ships will operate in ways to minimize the risk of detection and maximize their chances to defend themselves. These behavioral changes limit Russia’s ability to utilize their fleet to their advantage. The added stress of sudden combat increases fatigue and can lead to mistakes.

Many countries including Ukraine produce anti-ship cruise missiles. Ukraine produces the RK-360 Neptune anti-ship cruise missile. The Neptune is a derivative of the SS-N-25 Switchblade, also known as the “Harpoonski,” which supposedly became operational in 2021.10 It has an operational range of about 170NM. Most of the Black Sea Fleet is vulnerable to the Neptune, which is capable of sinking ships up to 5,000 tons. Despite the missile being in service, there have been no media reports of its use in the war.

Ranges of anti-ship cruise missiles based near Odessa. (Author graphic)

NATO nations should rush to send Harpoon and Exocet missiles and surface radars to Ukraine to support targeting Russian ships. Depending on variants, these missiles have ranges of about 40-80NM. Missiles with those ranges will enable Ukraine to deny sea control near Odessa.

Scouting Assets

Scouting and anti-scouting are key elements of naval warfare. Without scouting, one cannot effectively target the enemy. Conversely, anti-scouting shields your own force from detection. Modern scouting and anti-scouting are multi-domain: cyber, electronic warfare, radar, ships, subs, and aircraft. Captain Hughes defined the role of scouting as “to help get weapons within range and aim them effectively.”11

Missiles need targeting data. Radars are the most effective way to surveil large quantities of ocean, but they lack the ability to classify a target. Classification requires a visual sighting of the ship or electronic reconnaissance. Electronic reconnaissance is passive and detects radar emissions from ships and aircraft. Combinations of different radars can help classify ships.

Ukraine procured several scouting assets before the war began, two of which were the Turkish-made Bayraktar TB2 unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) and the U.S.-made MK VI patrol boat. Ukraine started the war with an unclear number of TB2s, possibly between 12 and 36. These UAVs have a 27-hour endurance, 186-mile range, and carry four laser-guided munitions. UAVs endurance and armament enable them to function as scouts in the narrow confines of the Black Sea. UAVs can identify targets in conjunction with radar and electronic warfare assets, minimizing the risk of sinking neutral shipping with ASCMs. Not only can TB2s scout, they can also attack. Their guided munitions can damage radar and communication antennas, putting modern ships out of action.

The United States had a foreign military sales agreement with Ukraine for 16 MK VI patrol boats, 3 of which were scheduled for delivery in 2022. These 25-meter patrol boats are equipped with two remote-controlled 25mm guns. With a 600NM range and a speed of 45 knots, these boats could use speed, darkness, and littoral clutter to scout.12 In addition to scouting duties, these boats could be used in anti-scouting and offensive roles.

Since the development of the torpedo in the 1880s, small boats with torpedoes and later missiles have been able to challenge larger warships. These boats are fast and can undertake offensive action in the Black Sea littorals to disrupt Russian actions and impose costs. They are not designed to carry mines, but they can carry a 7-meter rigid hull inflatable boat (RHIB) in an angled stern ramp. Removal of the RHIB would free ramp space to carry and launch mines. Their range and speed allow them to travel the 158NM from Odessa to Sevastopol, mine the harbor, and utilize LAWs, Javelins, and other small missiles to disrupt Russian operations.


Russia has not yet moved amphibious forces towards Odessa, but it is likely they will in the future.13 President Lukashenko was photographed in early March with a map showing a planned landing to the east of Odessa. The assistance recommended in this article would help Ukraine challenge the Russians and allow them to contest control of the Black Sea.

Belarusian president Alexander Lukashenko with a map of Ukraine depicting plans for an amphibious landing near Odessa on Ukraine’s southern coast. Click to expand. (Graphic via

Without assistance, Russia will maintain sea control. Although the bulk of this conflict has played out ashore, sea control enables supply and maneuver, including an advance towards Odessa. The best Ukraine can hope for is sea denial. NATO can support Ukraine’s fight for sea denial by providing mines, anti-surface cruise missiles, and scouting assets.

Ukraine successfully attacked Russian ships unloading armored vehicles in the port of Berdyansk. One LST sank at the pier and two others sortied, possibly damaged. It is unclear whether this attack was with ballistic missiles, drones, or something else, but it demonstrates the creative spirit of the Ukrainian Navy. This attack temporarily denied sea control to the Russian Navy and imposed costs on their ability to reinforce their siege of Mariupol. Improving Ukraine’s ability to deny Russia sea control will support the Ukrainian resistance along the coast.14 Although Ukraine might not be able to prevent another landing, these capabilities would enable Ukraine to impose serious costs on the Russian Navy. With the Bosporus Strait closed, Russia cannot reinforce the Black Sea Fleet. Enough ship losses will not only help Ukraine, but also help protect NATO’s Black Sea members.

LCDR Jason Lancaster is a Surface Warfare Officer. He has served at sea aboard amphibious ships, destroyers, and a destroyer squadron. Ashore, he has worked on various N5 planning staffs. He is an alumnus of Mary Washington College and holds an MA in History from the University of Tulsa. His views are his own and do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Navy or Department of Defense.


[1] British Ministry of Defense (2022, April 6). Russian Attacks and Troop Movements. London, United Kingdom: Twitter. Retrieved from

[2] Mongilio, H., & Lagrone, S. (2022, February 25). Russian Navy Launches Amphibious assault on Ukraine. USNI Blog. Retrieved from

[3] Lagrone, S. (2022, February 24). Russian Navy masses 16 warships. USNI Blog. Retrieved from

[4] Mongilio, H. (2022, February 22). Turkey Closes Bosphorus, Dardanelles Straits to Warships. USNI Blog. Retrieved from

[5, 11] Hughes, W. (2018). Fleet Tactics and Naval Operations. Annapolis: Naval Institute Press.

[6] Ponomarenko, I. (2022, January 4). Ukraine to get at least 3 Mark VI boats in 2022. Kyiv Independent. Retrieved from

[7] National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2000. Oceanography and Mine Warfare. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.

[8] Ralby, Ian and Zaliubovsky, Leonid, (2022, March 25), New Heights of Russian Hypocrisy and Unlawfare in the Black Sea. Retrieved from:

[9] Woodward, S. (1992). One Hundred Days, The Memoirs of The Falklands Battle Group Commander. London: Harper Collins.

[10] Ponomarenko., I. (2021, March 15). Ukraine’s navy acquires first Neptune cruise missiles. Kyiv Post.

[12] Warner, B. (2019, January 10). Mark VI Patrol Boats Sail 500 Nautical Miles in Record Transit. USNI Blog. Retrieved from

[13] Mongilio, H. (2022, March 4). U.S. Officials: Russian Forces Keeping Forces Ashore For Now, Odessa Amphibious Assault Still Possible. USNI Blog. Retrieved from

[14] Sutton, H.I. (2022, March 25). Satellite Images confirm Russian Landing Ship sunk at Berdyasnk. USNI Blog. Retrieved from

Featured image: Russian Black Sea Fleet landing craft approach Crimea during an exercise Sept. 11, 2012, about two years before Russia took the peninsula from Ukraine. (Credit: Russian Defense Ministry)

Reconsidering Russian Maritime Warfare

Russia-Ukraine Topic Week

By Michael B. Petersen

How might Russian maritime forces be brought to bear against the United States and its allies? This question is particularly critical as fears of inadvertent escalation in Ukraine increase. Understanding the answer requires a close reading of what Russian military theorists themselves write about warfare, matched with an examination of maritime geography; combat power; and intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance, and targeting (ISR-T). Constraints in all of these areas mean that rather than solely seeking out targets at sea for a series of navy-on-navy fights, Russian maritime forces are likely to be more effective at operations that focus on striking “critical objects” on land rather than ship-to-ship combat at sea.

Many analyses of Russian naval warfare focus on the concept of anti-access/area denial (A2/AD). These valuable studies nevertheless do not discuss Russia’s ability to fight at the theater level. A broader assessment at this level is necessary in light of renewed suggestions that Russia may seek to close the Greenland-Iceland-United Kingdom (GIUK) Gap or English Channel, or engage in a Fourth Battle of the Atlantic” over sea lines of communication.

The Russian Federation Navy’s Wartime Tasks

Understanding the navy’s role first requires a basic grasp of Russian conflict periodization. The two most critical periods in Russian military thought are the “Threatening Period” (“Ugrozhayemyy Period,”) and the “Initial Period of War” (“Nachal’nyy Period Voiny”). In contemporary Russian military philosophy, the Threatening Period is generally characterized as a short, sharp crisis potentially leading to war, while the Initial Period is characterized by decisive, rapid, joint, military, political, and cyber operations designed to achieve primary objectives or enable follow-on operations.

The Ministry of Defense has assigned several tasks to the Russian Navy in the Threatening Period. They include

  • rapid mobilization and transition to wartime footing as part of a strategic deterrence mission
  • Isolation of local conflicts and preventing them from growing into a regional war
  • Protection of Russian economic interests and freedom of navigation at sea

Given the Russian General Staff’s philosophical emphasis on preemptive operations, the Navy is also required to be able to rapidly shift to offensive and defensive combat operations when ordered. This is generally considered the start of the Initial Period of War.

In the last decade, Russian naval thinkers have emphasized the importance of land attack against critically important targets (or “objects”), especially in the Initial Period. Its official doctrine notes that one of its roles is “to attack the critically important ground-based facilities of the adversary, without violating, until a certain moment, its national sovereignty.” A crucial wartime objective is “destruction of enemy’s military and economic potential by striking its vital facilities from the sea.” This is a concept known in some circles as “the fleet against the shore.”

This is not to minimize the more traditional need to destroy naval targets at sea. For example, an influential article in the General Staff’s journal Military Thought highlights attacks against “maritime carriers that are the global strike assets” and “maritime components of the U.S. national [missile defense] system”). Thus a combination of strikes against critical targets afloat and ashore are at the core of a naval cost imposition strategy.

Indeed, despite the West’s analytic emphasis on A2/AD, Russian naval warfighting philosophy does not focus exclusively on sea control or denial. Instead, it emphasizes cost imposition ashore and afloat via strikes against targets selected for their critical strategic value. Russian naval strategists blend both, attempting to both limit damage and impose cost.

The Tyranny of Geography

While geography offers Russia certain advantages in the littorals and so-called “Near Seas” (a term rarely defined, but generally understood as laying up to 300 nautical miles off shore), as a factor in warfighting against distant targets, geography presents Russian forces with significant challenges. The long-standing geographical concept of a “loss of strength gradient” is useful here. This is a unit of competitive power that is lost per some unit of distance from home shores. In short, relative military strength changes with distance. In Russia’s maritime domain, this loss of strength gradient is particularly relevant at the operational level of war because of capacity limitations and the broad failure to secure overseas alliances or bases.

Russian warfighting in its littoral and Near Sea regions is based around a densely layered and redundant network of land-based sensors, jammers, decoys, land-based missiles, and tactical fighters. As it moves into the Far Sea zone and distant “World Ocean,” (both roughly over 300-400nm from Russia) the military’s loss of strength gradient begins to take hold as the potential volume of contested geographic space increases and available sensors decrease. Larger areas require higher-volume over-the-horizon search capabilities coupled with large numbers of survivable oceangoing warships. Both are in limited supply in the Russian Navy.

Moscow has successfully built lines of smaller and less complex naval platforms that are expected to defend its near seas in conjunction with shore-based assets. The smaller size of these ships limits their range and survivability, confining their anti-ship capabilities to local waters. But many are nevertheless equipped with the Kalibr land-attack cruise missile, capable of performing a theater strike role against targets ashore nearly 1,000 miles away.

Larger platforms, especially large surface combatants and nuclear-powered submarines based in the Northern and Pacific Fleets, have greater range and survivability. In the near term, however, they suffer from severe order of battle constraints. If Moscow draws off SSNs to defend its strategic nuclear ballistic missile submarines, then the navy’s fighting strength in the Far Sea and World Ocean is may be limited to three to five submarines in the North Atlantic, for example (an area comprising some 6.4 million square miles), and two or three in the vast Pacific.

Over-the-Horizon ISR

Over-the-horizon (OTH) ISR, an essential element of open-ocean warfare, is perhaps Russia’s most critical maritime warfighting challenge. Its maritime joint combat force has developed extraordinary long-range anti-ship missiles, but they cannot kill what they cannot find. In order to exploit that range, the volume of required search space has exploded. OTH sensors capable of transmitting target-quality data to shooting platforms have lagged behind this need.

Russian shore-based sensors have impressive capability out to a few hundred miles — the Near Sea Zone — but are inadequate for open-ocean targeting. To overcome this, Moscow has constructed a new family of electronic intelligence satellites. The “Liana” system of satellites collects electronic signals emitted by adversary naval vessels and transmits that information to Russian warships equipped with the proper satellite communications equipment. According to open sources, only one Pion-NKS satellite and three Lotos-S satellites are currently operational. Publicly available satellite tracking websites indicate that there may be considerable coverage gaps.

Long-range maritime patrol and reconnaissance aircraft such as the Tu-142 Bear-F and Il-38 May must fill these gaps. But Russia lacks forward basing, fighter aircraft with similar range, and carrier-based fighter aircraft, making long-range escort of these missions impossible. Unless they are willing to assume extraordinary levels of risk, unarmed reconnaissance aircraft must stay within easy reach of Russian fighter patrols or land-based SAM coverage for their own protection, limiting the ocean area they can safely cover.

Sensors aboard warships and submarines also have critical limitations. For submarines, only under certain conditions will sonar detections of surface vessels be possible out to a few dozen miles. Surface platforms can have much greater detection ranges, but lack the endurance and survivability of nuclear-powered submarines. Ship-based ISR presents an ever-increasing risk as it patrols farther away from shore-based air defense. Finally, as Russian analysts themselves acknowledge, even the most advanced systems are not foolproof against sophisticated adversaries.

Imagining Russian Warfare at Sea

How might these dynamics manifest themselves in a high-intensity, regional or large-scale war in the next two to three years? Combining these military concepts at the operational and strategic level of war with Russian strengths and limitations, and pitting them against a sophisticated adversary such as the United States and NATO, it is possible to gain a sense of the broad contours of such a conflict.

During the Threatening Period, the Russian Navy is likely to begin dispersing to assigned patrol areas in the littorals, Near Sea, and Far Sea zones in an effort at crisis deterrence. Ashore, theatre-level Aerospace Defense Forces deployed along maritime frontiers will be brought up to higher states of readiness and possibly deployed from garrisons. The goal of all of these forces would be to threaten “deterrent” or unacceptable damage to the potential adversary.

Given the General Staff’s sensitivities to correlations of forces over time and its emphasis on preemptive warfare, Moscow may initiate hostilities if it believes that deterrence is failing. Rapid, decisive strategic aerospace operations, or strategic operations for the destruction of critically important targets (SODCIT), are key elements of potential campaigns in the Initial Period. Yasen and Yasen-M SSGNs are especially crucial in this regard, and may be required to attack military-industrial facilities, headquarters, and C2 nodes. Importantly, with only two or three potential submarines in this class in the near term, order of battle shortfalls place limitations on Russia’s ability to execute this mission, but given targeting limitations against naval targets, land attack is a key area of emphasis. 

The navy will likely comprise one component of a larger effort to achieve local superiority during this period. For example, in a hypothetical conflict in Europe or East Asia, the Initial Period may be characterized by an intense campaign against targets in places such as Norway, Romania, and Poland in Europe, and perhaps in Japan in East Asia. This campaign may form part of a larger effort to conduct theater-wide attacks on strategic targets with precision standoff weapons. Put another way, Russia may attempt to “expand” its adversary’s relative geography by pushing its opponents out of bases closer to Russia, forcing a more costly application of resources, while a nation like the U.S. may attempt to “shrink” its own by using standoff strike in order to bring follow-on military power forward.

Russian Long Range Aviation (LRA) bombers firing long-range precision-guided munitions from sanctuary may be more dangerous than the navy’s limited number of cruise-missile shooting submarines and their relatively small potential salvo size. Nevertheless, modern Kalibr-capable vessels should not be dismissed. Even if “bottled up” in their home waters in the Barents, Baltic, or Black Seas, smaller vessels can still strike most of northern, central, and eastern Europe. These attacks can have a decisive political effect on the course of a conflict.

Moving, uncooperative adversary naval targets are a far more difficult targeting problem. Large naval platforms in the Northern and Pacific Fleets, dispersed in the Threatening Period, may attempt to overcome open-ocean ISR shortcomings by lying in wait near maritime choke points. Though limited in number, nuclear-powered submarines play a crucial role in both offensive cost imposition and defensive damage limitation by seeking out these vessels before they get into striking range of Russian shores.

This is where the geographic loss of power gradient may affect Russia’s adversaries. If Russia can successfully eliminate forward air basing, the U.S and its partners must invest greater resources to move large amounts of combat strength forward. If the U.S. Navy must come forward, the searchable volume of ocean shrinks proportionately. Surface ships, including carrier strike groups, could be exposed to attacks from strike aircraft, other surface ships, and any submarines that may be lying in wait. Counter-ISR-T and operational maneuver techniques are likely to be the difference between life and death. Given these conditions, it is possible that the relative power gradient may rebalance if a U.S. carrier strike group or other platforms come forward.

This stage of warfare may be where Russia can impose the most cost. Large Russian surface combatants will provide air defense and surface strike while smaller frigates and corvettes, many equipped with Kalibr anti-ship cruise missiles, will conduct anti-surface warfare. But given limitations in numbers of missiles on board and the absence of at-sea reloads, an equal contributor in the effort to dole out punishment on any adversary naval forces that come forward will be made by land-based strike aircraft supported by tactical fighters and shore-based missile systems.

Implications for Analysis and Planning

This analysis has several implications. First, arguments about threats to Trans-Atlantic SLOCs require much greater analytic clarity because they run the risk of warping strategic realities. Given Russian capacity and OTH ISR challenges, it seems likely that points of embarkation and debarkation — the ends of the SLOCs, not the vast middle of the SLOCs — are at risk, primarily because it is comparatively easier to destroy a ship in port than it is to do so at sea. The circumstances of geography and the state of their own military modernization would likely drive Russian naval forces in this direction.

The majority of Russian naval effort would likely be dedicated to inflicting carefully dosed conventional damage effects in an effort to disorganize responses, interrupt logistics flows at fixed points, and generally impose “deterrent” or “unacceptable” damage that coerces an adversary to sue for peace on terms favorable to Russia. Thus, the bulk of offensive activity is likely to be on landward, fixed targets as part of a joint campaign aimed at cost imposition. Long-range precision guided munitions may be used either from the sanctuary of distant bastions or from the far seas. Russian joint assets are less likely to dedicate the lion’s share of resources for long and frustrating hunting missions for moving targets in a very large ocean. Such attacks, while possible, are far more ISR-intensive and tactically complex.

Concerns about Russia’s purported ability to threaten targets south of the Greenland-Iceland-United Kingdom Gap (GIUK Gap) are probably inflated. While Russia may technically be able to close the GIUK Gap or even the English Channel for a time, the likelihood of such an attempt is low. Rather, Russian warfighting strategy is partially shaped by its need to minimize its asymmetric disadvantages in warship capacity and ISR. In short, Russia still lacks the open-ocean capacity necessary to meaningfully overcome the geographic loss of strength gradient and successfully conduct ship-to-ship fighting in the central Atlantic at a scale to defeat the United States and NATO.

Even so, this analysis also suggests that the U.S. and NATO should not ignore investments in key future capabilities. Continued development in ISR and counter-ISR capabilities will remain essential. But counter-ISR will be no guarantee against attack. As Russia fields more advanced sensors to feed combat platforms equipped with new hypersonic anti-ship missiles, avoiding detection and shooting down inbound missiles will become ever more difficult, requiring more investments in so-called “soft-kill” technologies that seduce missiles to strike false targets. In addition, if Russia is able to successfully expand the maritime geography, U.S. and NATO partners are likely to require greater investments in aerial refueling to ensure that tactical combat aircraft are able to transit and fight at long distance.

Finally, it is worth remembering that any wartime adversary of Russia gets a vote. Too much of what passes for analysis of the Russian military, particularly its maritime warfighting capabilities, is carried out in the absence of what a sophisticated adversary may do with its own force. War is a dynamic interaction. Moscow’s potential opponents have effective and powerful militaries of their own, and are developing sophisticated concepts to deter or defeat Russia. Any clear-headed assessment of Russian maritime warfighting must take both perspectives into account. 

Dr. Michael Petersen is director of the Russia Maritime Studies Institute and Holloway Advanced Research Program at the U.S. Naval War College. The opinions here are solely the author’s and do not represent those of the U.S. Navy or Department of Defense.

Featured Image: Russian Navy Admiral Gorshkov-class frigate Admiral Gorshkov. (Alamy photo)